Advice for Candidates on Interview
An interview is a short window of opportunity in which you make a vivid impression. Unfortunately, most people don’t have any idea how to do that. Even worse, they often follow very bad advice from people who think they know, but who actually have no extensive interview experience and don’t know what approach is effective.
An interview is about who you REALLY are, what you can REALLY do and what you REALLY want to do, not so much about your dress code or body language. Your success, or lack of it will depend on how well you communicate and relate.
Having been in executive search for over 30 years, having conducted thousands of interviews and, most important, having de-briefed thousands of people from both sides of the desk after interviews, I have arrived at some strong opinions on how anyone can dramatically improve their interviews. My approach is based on a few simple, basic principals: 1. Always tell the truth. 2. Be ready to state your beliefs, opinions and values very strongly and confidently. 3. Prepare! Prepare! Prepare!
THREE GOALS Before going on an interview, define your goals and objectives-that is, exactly what do you want to get from this meeting? I suggest there are three prime objectives anyone should have at the top of their list:
CHARACTER: LEADERSHIP, VISION, PASSION, INTEGRITY The hiring official will make the decision to hire you based on these qualities. This is always true, although if they turn you down the reason they always give is some technical shortcoming (not enough of this, too much of that). Trust me, however, it’s never technical, it’s always the intangible qualities. The fact that they have agreed to interview you is acknowledgement that they feel pretty sure you have the prerequisite experience and skills. Your objective in the interview is to find ways to display these four intangible qualities and make sure they are seen.
ATTITUDE: CONFIDENT, DECISIVE, POSITIVE, COOPERATIVE
These are four essential attitudes almost all successful people must have.
They must be beyond obvious in an interview. In today’s world almost all organizations accomplish their goals through teamwork. If you are to lead a team or be a part of a team you must show the hiring official these attitudes. You also must have these attitudes 100% of the time on the job.
The tougher the situation, the more important your attitude.
A good interview begins days before your appointment time. Make sure you know as much as possible about the company. Read their website, read articles about them to learn new or changing things in their world and read about their products and their competitors so that you may understand the market in which they compete.
Use this information to formulate questions that you guess they may ask and practice answering these hypothetical questions. OVERPREPARE! They may not ask you the exact questions you anticipate but you can use these answers in some other parts of the conversation or in your proactive statement about “WHY YOU WILL BE A GREAT ASSET FOR THEM!”
Study the information you have about the job. Make sure you prepare good, intelligent questions to ask. These questions should allow you to explain how your skills and experience will make you a top performer in this job. This is the perfect opportunity to drop a success story into the conversation. Do not use these questions to dig out unimportant details about the job just so you will feel more comfortable. These questions are a platform for you to explain how your skills, experiences and successes will make you a top player for this assignment.
Your research will give you a feel for the company culture. You need to present yourself in a way that you will fit that culture. The interview is not a place for you to espouse your political or cultural viewpoints. Almost all companies want flexible people who get along and work to make the company achieve its goals. They don’t want people who bring some personal agenda into the workplace. They want people who focus on the job. Sadly, a casual offhand remark can be misinterpreted or blown way out of preparation.
It is very hard to demonstrate the qualities they seek in an interview unless you are prepared and have a specific plan for doing so. Preparation makes all the difference. An interview is a meeting. Whatever kinds of meetings you’ve been to in the past, I’m absolutely sure you did much better, you obtained you objective, you got what you needed if you were prepared!
In my experience, most people simply don’t prepare for an interview. I know this for a fact, because many people come to interview with me and when I ask them basic questions they should easily answer, they give very weak and unorganized responses. The next morning, every one of them will call back and have a great answer. The reason? They thought about it overnight. As a headhunter, I’m happy to give my candidates a second chance. A company won’t do that!
HAVE YOUR SUCCESS STORIES READY. By far the most common mistake people make when describing their job and success stories during an interview is to leave the listener uninformed about the company, product or service, process or volume. Without that data the hiring official does not know if the place you worked was small (you and your brother-in-law working in a garage) or large (a billion dollar company). Obviously, they can’t assess your capability for their company without knowing that information. When talking about past jobs, projects or successes always start with a short, one sentence overview of the operation, quantified with numbers, so the listener can understand it. The four facts they must know to understand your past employer are: size, products (brands), processes and customers.
SUCCESS STORIES The way a hiring official learns about your past achievements is through your verbal presentation of SUCCESS STORIES during the interview. Your success stories will reveal those intangible points of character I mentioned. Don’t think your resume will do it for you. A resume is one of the tools, although not the most important one, that helped your headhunter land the interview. Now that you have the interview, your resume has done all that it can for you.
YOU HAVE A SHORT WINDOW OF TIME TO MAKE A VIVID IMPRESSION Telling good success stories is one of the best ways to validate your work experience and showcase the four all-important qualities (leadership, vision, passion and integrity). Sadly, most people I work with are not prepared to tell their success stories effectively. A good success story comes in three parts and takes two or three minutes to be told well. The three parts are; PROBLEM, ACTION, RESULT. Every story starts with problems, and there is always more than one problem. There might be one main problem, but there are always underlying and tangential problems. If there is no problem, they don’t need to hire anyone.
PROBLEM: Tell what all of the problems were. Be sure and quantify the numbers under the bad conditions. Never exaggerate, but be sure you get in all the negatives.
ACTION: Explain your study and analysis of the problems. Tell what conclusions you came to and how you began to implement them. Be sure and give credit to others who helped, because none of us accomplishes anything alone. Also explain what you tried that didn’t work. I certainly don’t fix all my problems on the first try and I doubt you do.
RESULT: Get to the changes that began to occur. Be sure and quantify the good numbers achieved, contrasting them with the old numbers. If you can’t quantify a success story it will probably make little impact on the interviewer.
In an interview, you won’t get to tell every story or explain every job. Therefore, take the most important, best and most recent job and success story and tell that. In many interviews the candidate only gets to tell one or two stories, but if it’s a good one told well, that’s enough. Remember, the most important reason for telling success stories is to demonstrate those intangibles that are ultimately most important. Demonstrating your values, philosophy, problem solving and leadership skills is the most important message that comes out of these stories.
SOLVING THEIR PROBLEM As important as success stories are, if someone goes on an interview and all they get to talk about is past history, I’ll bet they don’t get an offer. Why? Because a company is only interested in the candidate’s past to a certain point. What they are far more interested in is what the candidate can do to help their company solve their problems today. The company obviously has a problem, or they wouldn’t be interviewing. In many cases they are already somewhat convinced that the candidate has the background skills and experience for the position thanks to the head hunter and his/her presentation of their background and references.
When the candidate gets to talk about the company’s problems, and how they can apply their skills, leadership, vision, passion and integrity (those intangibles I mentioned earlier), to solving them, this goes a long way toward giving the hiring official full confidence that the candidate can be an outstanding contributor and can solve the problems. STRATEGIES
First Strategy: ASK GOOD, TOUGH QUESTIONS
The better and tougher questions you ask, the more they respect you. You must develop your questions ahead of time. Make a list of several great questions about their operation, problems, goals, plans, shortcomings, philosophy, failed attempts and market dynamics. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about their problems, they love that. They have problems or they would not be interviewing you. Their fondest hope is that you are the solution. Don’t ask too many questions, just good ones.
After you’ve made your list, memorize it and throw it away before you go in the door. Never take notes into an interview, and never make notes while you’re there! A pen and pad are barriers, and there should never never be any barrier whatsoever between you and the interviewer.
These questions can sometimes be used as a way to introduce a topic into the conversation that you want to make sure gets discussed. They can be a lead into your success story, or a way to demonstrate one of your intangible qualities.
Second Strategy: THE STRATEGY OF THE “KEYS”
I have learned through my years in executive search, that in the mind of every hiring official there are a few key things the person hired must be able to accomplish in order to achieve success. Here’s how you use this: After you’ve been talking for a while, look the interviewer in the eye and ask:
“If you decide to hire me in this position, what are the key things I will have to accomplish for you in order to be the success you need me to be?”
The interviewer will think for a minute and then say: “Well, you have to do…” In my experience, the most common number of keys they come up with is two. They almost never come up with more than four.
But, whatever keys the interviewer names, you take each one and explain two things about it:
First you tell them your experience. Second you tell them your philosophy.
The experience statement: this should be just one quick overview sentence stating your direct experience with that subject (where, how long, how much).
The philosophy statement: make this a short explanation of what you truly believe would make the key thing happen consistently and successfully.
After you have done these, you have done the most powerful thing anyone can do in an interview: You have looked them in the eye and told them from the horse’s mouth why you can do their job. When you think about it, everyone who ever goes on an interview should do this, but in my experience almost no one ever does. You must realize you are the only person who can convincingly deliver this message. The head hunter has done his or her job by getting you the interview. You have to close the sale. THREE REQUIREMENTS I have come to realize that in every search there are only three things the successful candidate must have to receive an offer from the company. I frequently receive multi-page position descriptions from my clients and I have certainly written many hundreds on behalf of my clients, but there are really only three things the candidate must have to receive an offer.
First: A YES answer to this question:
“Is this person technically qualified to do this job?”
Obviously, there is a full subset of questions that define this issue. However, in my experience in our search firm, if my client company decides to interview my candidate, virtually 100% of the time the candidate has the appropriate technical qualifications and skills to do the job. If you get an interview with a company, they have already been pretty well convinced that you have the experience or they would not schedule the interview.
Second: (this is the most important of all) A YES answer to:
“Does this person really want to do this job?”
This factor, more than any other, determines if the company offers the job. First of all, if you’re not sure you want this job, don’t go on the interview. I believe everyone should set their goals in life to do what they really want to do. If you do really want this job you must be very strong in getting that message across to the company. There are dozens of indirect ways to pass that message through; your enthusiasm, your questions, your laser beam focus on the interviewer.
There’s also one direct way: look them in the eye and tell them you want this job! Most all of the candidates I work with are senior executives who have hired many people. They all tell me of stories in which they interviewed multiple candidates for a job and ended up hiring one whose experience was, perhaps, not quite as impressive as other candidates but whose enthusiasm said: “Just give me a chance to show you and you’ll never be sorry.” They always hire that person. I bet you always hire that person. I assure you I always hire that person.
As soon as I got in the search business I began hearing employers and candidates talk about “chemistry”, particularly as it related to “chemistry in an interview”. Pretty soon I realized I had to find out what this “chemistry” was, because it was surely going to affect my business.
I began studying the subject of chemistry in an interview. I learned what “interview chemistry” was by debriefing hundreds of candidates and interviewers.
Here’s what I learned: Chemistry is nothing but communication!
Chemistry is two people talking and understanding each other. It is not your power tie, or where you went to school, or your accent. As a good ole’ southern boy, I’ve found that I have great chemistry with lots of my clients who speak very strangely, from weird places like New York City. (The most amazing thing of all is that they think I have an accent!) Oh well, the real point here is that two people can have wonderfully stimulating conversations and great exchanges of ideas, but only if they hear each other.
You must be a good listener. If you don’t listen, you have about zero odds of responding to anything said, intelligently.
One of the most important lessons I have learned is that an interview is one of the most common times for people not to listen. What happens all too frequently is that a person does no pre-interview preparation-except for a fair amount of unproductive anxiety. They arrive at the interview and suddenly realize that soon they will have to start talking and sound like they have good sense. So, they immediately tune out the interviewer, and try to think of something brilliant they can say when he or she shuts up and lets them talk. A classic situation for the candidate to give a dumb answer; hem and haw when asked a question; not remember how to explain why they were successful in their last job; or miss the opportunity to get across information necessary to validate all those intangibles I mentioned.
When you are prepared, on the other hand, you can relax and focus on the interviewer like a laser. You can hang on every word. You already have great things to say because you thought about them beforehand. Being prepared, you have great comments that are just sitting in your “mental file cabinet” waiting to toss out when the subject or opportunity enters the conversation.
In the best interviews, the conversation goes back and forth like a tennis match. Remember that the things you prepared to talk about are the very things the interviewer wants to learn about you. Be prepared to help out the interviewer by being proactive in the conversation and guiding the topics around to the right subjects if the interviewer does not bring them up. COMMONLY ASKED QUESTIONS Here are a few questions that seem to come up over and over in most interviews, and lots of people are concerned about how to answer them. The first and most important advice is to always tell the truth. You’ll never go wrong by doing that.
“Why did you leave your last (some) job?”
I’m not going to tell you the answer but I will tell you how to structure the answer by following three rules:
The most important is “brief.” No one ever got a job talking about why they left another one. So, develop your answer and don’t be apologetic or embarrassed. However, state clearly and positively in a few short sentences the reason you’re no longer there, and then shut up! Also, be prepared for a follow up question. Answer those forthrightly, then shut up! This is one of those areas that the more you stir it, the more it stinks, no matter what happened.
“What kind of money are you looking for?”
This one certainly can be tricky. The problem is you don’t know how much money it will take and you will not know for sure until you go through the process. I’m sure there are a lot of factors that will come into your decision to take the job, and most of them are not about the first paycheck you receive. You’re more concerned about your career ambitions, and where you can spend the next several years to give you the best chance for realizing your career ambitions.
But right now you’re facing this question, so how do you answer it? One thing I’ve learned in the search business is “the better you do in the interview, the better you do in the money.” So, that’s one more reason to follow my advice. When asked; “What salary do you want?” If you give any numerical answer it will automatically be the wrong one. You’ll be too high and blow the deal or too low and leave money on the table.
My advice: Give no numerical answer, but state your general career goals. That’s probably your most honest answer, anyway. That works about 80% of the time. But, if they come back and push for a specific answer, it is okay to give the amount of your current or last salary. That number is a fact and they probably already know or can find out.
You can say: “My last salary was______. Then make no further editorial comment about it
Why are you interested in our position?
In my experience most people get this one wrong. I always ask this question of my candidates, and unless they can give me a very satisfactory answer I will not present them to my client! Some of the common wrong answers I hear:
“ My Grandmother, (Parent etc.) lives near by and they’re getting old and need me closer.”
“I always wanted to live in that city.”
“I’m out of work and need a job.”
“I need to make more money.”
“I don’t want to be commuting (traveling) as much.”
All those and many other answers are wrong! There is only one correct answer to that question: “This is the job I want to do!
If you think about it from the interviewers’ perspective, he cares nothing for your grandmother, unemployment, commute, cash flow shortage or city of choice. He or she is going through this exercise for one reason only; they have a problem that must be solved and you are hopefully the solution to that problem. Nothing else matters to them, and it shouldn’t.
What should I wear?
There seems to be more confusion today than ever before since so many companies are espousing casual dress in the work place, not only on Friday, but all the time. However, there is one simple rule to follow, regardless of the company’s dress code, or even if the company tells you to dress casual on the interview: Always wear your best conservative business suit or outfit. It is a good thing if you are dressed better than the hiring official. If they espouse casual dress in this environment casually drop the thought that this is a positive with you and the way they are dressed is what you like to wear.
You want to make the statement that this is a serious and important occasion in your life, and you went to the trouble to groom carefully and put your best business foot forward.
GO FORTH AND CONQUER You are now forewarned and forearmed. I expect you to go forth and conquer! All the advice I’ve given you in this article comes from thousands of direct, real and personal experiences by me, the staff of Adkins & Associates and hundreds of my clients and friends. I have always solicited feedback from the interviewers at my client companies, and carefully noted the things to which they respond both positively and negatively.
Everyone has a level of performance they achieve in interviews, but it is definitely my experience that everyone, regardless of where they might fall on the scale between awful and fabulous in natural interviewing ability, can make a tremendous leap forward by following the suggestions contained in this article.